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Future Planning Is Critical

No defense planning can be effective without a rigorous assessment of the future security environment. That is why I am aghast at Sandra Erwin’s comments concerning future Army planning (“Predicting the Future of Warfare: Why Bother?” October 2010). 

Yes, the Army got burned by thinking too “technology futuristically” with their Future Combat Systems (FCS). But serious defense planning would have told them that they faced many not-yet-solved engineering problems before they made the decision to proceed with their — quite frankly — grandiose plans. The key is not to mistrust technology, but to mistrust overly optimistic assessments of what the technology will be or can do. There has never been, and never will be, “surgical wars,” particularly not for ground forces. Future technologies will never be able to “transform the nature of war.”  

Human nature — in its most violent as well as most peaceful — is the one thing that does not change. A serious futurist, as opposed to technologists hyping their latest possibilities, knows that history is the laboratory by which plans are evaluated.  

Planning is not about “predicting the future.” No one can. Planning is about assessing the full range of future possibilities, including the possibility that one’s plans can fail. Every plan should have hedges and fallbacks. Serious questions should be asked: what if this promised future capability doesn’t work? What if it fails in the heat of battle?  What counter-moves would an enemy naturally take? If we invest these resources and the system doesn’t work, how will we recover?  

Potential technology will not determine the future; planning, engineering and commitment will. Future planning is all about providing not just options to decision-makers, but also the range of consequences that could occur if things don’t happen the way we expect.

Our joint forces are indeed engaged in two grinding wars. It is necessary to focus on the wars we have now to achieve success. But that does not mean that planning for other, quite different contingencies — with all the threats, capabilities and possibilities involved — should not be seriously pursued. It is fair to point out that if the decision-makers that initiated our involvements had planned for the full range of contingencies — from sectarian violence to bombing of supply convoys — maybe those wars would not have been so grinding, or, at least, we would have expected it.

The problem with avoiding “next-war-itis” by curtailing serious future planning is that it leads almost unavoidably to “last-war-itis.” Will joint forces again face terrorist-led insurgencies? We need an effective counterinsurgency doctrine for when we do. But is that the only potential future we will face? Of course not. Food for thought includes the fact that while an insurgency on the other side of the world can hurt us, a major war with a powerful nation-state could kill us. These are futures toward which the office of the secretary of defense and the services cannot turn blind eyes. Will such planning inevitably lead to proposals for multi-billion technological platforms as solutions? I suppose so — if we substitute technology hype for planning. A good planner takes into consideration the resources that are reasonably available — including the fact that financial difficulties are occurring.

Not planning is a default situation in which we are likely to be surprised and unprepared. You are going to get stuck with a plan that assumes the future will be the same as today.  But, as noted, planning is not predicting. To recall Army history, it was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Omar Bradley, who stated to Congress in 1949: “Large scale amphibious operations will never occur again.” It was Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur who proved him wrong the very next year. My two fears are that decision-makers as experienced as the secretary of defense may confuse future planning with advocating expensive future platforms and therefore dismiss its value, and that their focus on the present might blind them to contingencies that now might seem unlikely. Effective planners rule nothing out. Effective decision-makers must clearly articulate the risks of their decisions being wrong.                   

Should the Army plan for today, the short-term future, and a longer-term future? If it can restrain itself from believing there could be more than one future, and that technology alone is not going to solve it. I think it can and it must.

Sam J. Tangredi
Strategic Insight
San Diego

Reforming Defense Budgeting

Nathaniel H. Sledge, Jr.’s article “Defense Spending: Today’s Broken Budgeting Process Must Change” (November 2010) covers an array of problems attributed to about everything and anything pertaining to the inefficiency of “defense spending.”

The original Planning, Programming and Budgeting System (PPBS) was created by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara wiz kids. It was an evaluation tool designed and used by private corporations. Along with the introduction of the PPBS, another corporate tool was injected into the defense department. This was the Cost, Schedule, Control System Criteria System, better known as C-square.

As a military acquisition person, we had to provide numerous inputs to these two corporate systems in order to get our programs funded. We tried to abide by annual congressional funding limitations only to receive program cuts after given the go ahead to go to contract. Any sound strategic planning was a just a dream document to speak about and market to congressional committees.  

This worthwhile planning document changed as often as the wind. It gave us a snapped picture of the current environment and changed when the threats changed.  As military people, we operate with the tools given to us and leave the “Monday morning quarterbacking” until after we retire. To do otherwise while on active status would indeed label us not a team player on our yearly performance reports.  

The value of experiences by our retired military veterans should be shared with members of congress to point out the benefits of passing bi-annual budgets. Then our military leaders can do the strategic planning to match congressionally approved defense appropriations to satisfy future military needs. This may be the first step to increase the efficiency of defense spending.

Ronald L. Baker
Springfield, VA

Nathanial H. Sledge’s Nov. 2010 article on defense spending, “Today’s Broken Budgeting Process Must Change,” outlines the looming budget crisis in the Defense Department and some of the efforts undertaken by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to address it.

Unfortunately, many of the cost-saving initiatives fail to address the primary area of waste in the federal government, what I would describe as a “spend to budget” culture.    

In the private sector, the profit motive drives spending behavior. This results in a culture in which resources are not wasted, thereby leaving larger profit margins. Excess budget left at the end of the fiscal year is considered an indicator of management effectiveness and efficiency, or “spend to profit.”

Unlike the private sector, in the federal government, unobligated fund left at the end of the fiscal year are considered a failure of management. This results in a “use it or lose it” mentality. Significant resources are wasted in the short-term attempt to obligate 100 percent of the budget. Go to any military installation near the end of the fiscal year and you will likely see perfectly good sidewalks being torn up and replaced with equally good sidewalks. You will also see perfectly good office chairs being replaced with new office chairs. This is because these expenditures (buying of chairs and sidewalk repairs) can be executed quickly and with little disruption to operations, simply as a means to burn up funds and reach an obligation rate near the magic 100 percent.

If funds are in the budget, they will get spent. Not only does this result in short-term waste of resources, but also results in a culture in which waste is not considered bad. With a $13 trillion national debt, and declining defense budget, we cannot afford to be this stupid.  

We must also understand that the concept of expiring funds is a purely fabricated contrivance of federal government bean counters. Unspent money never really expires; it just gets moved from one account to the other. Our goal as federal employees should be to ensure that all money gets spent to maximize value to the taxpayer.  

Some might say not spending the full budget constitutes impoundment per the Congressional Budget act of 1974. However, I believe this is subject to interpretation.

If I were secretary of defense, I would send out a memo directing that no Defense Department employee or organization shall be rated negatively due to unobligated funds. To the contrary, a manager who effectively executes his or her mission with excess funds at the end of the fiscal year should be rewarded.  

I would also direct that each agency strive to return a minimum of 3 percent of its budget to the national treasury. These two things, taken together would foster a culture of savings and help end spend‐to‐budget wastefulness.  
Jeff Windham
U.S. Army Rock Island Arsenal, IL

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, War Planning

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